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Video games as art: Passage

posted on February 11th, 2008 by anthony

If there were any lingering doubt as to the status of video games as a viable art medium, Passage lays that argument to rest. I’m not saying Passage is the first inventive concept ever, nor am I denying the artistic merits of video games up to this point. However, Passage is undeniably one of the most original ideas in gaming today and, more importantly, it is executed with a minimalist perfection that you simply must experience for yourself. Oh, and did I mention it’s a free download?

So, video games are a legitimate art form? Of course, the debate is over (and has been for some time from my perspective). However, for all the skeptics, Passage is the final nail in the coffin; the fat lady singing Queen’s “We Are The Champions” right as she delivers a knockout punch…on Judgment Day (in the biblical sense, not Terminator). My metaphor mangling prose aside, Passage is without a doubt the most artful and imaginative gaming concept I have seen in twenty-two years of playing and it accomplishes this feat without harnessing the graphical horsepower of cell processors or utilizing a production budget that puts most third-world countries to shame. The question is, how?

Let’s face it; video games lack something these days. I won’t go so far as to say that I don’t enjoy the current state of gaming; it’s just not quite what I imagined it would be when I picked up my first NES controller over two decades ago. It’s certainly not as disappointing as the automobile industry–those bastards promised flying cars in the year 2000 and, eight years into the new millennium already, I’m still driving a landlocked Nissan Versa hatchback. So comparatively, the gaming industry isn’t a complete disappointment. Back on point; let me also assure you that I’m not just another crusty old dinosaur shaking my cane with contempt at each new generation of technology insisting incessantly that the video game industry peaked with Ms. Pac Man and everything since is crap. Besides, everyone knows that Dig Dug was far superior.

While I love the classics, there is no denying that high definition graphics, realistic physics engines and increasingly complex A.I. routines are incredible. The mere sight of a game like God of War or Assassin’s Creed would surely have caused the six-year old me to wet himself with unbridled delight (I’m over that now). Nevertheless, somewhere in the transition from sprites to polygons, during the evolution from CRT to 1080p, some infinitesimal yet essential ingredient was lost. Why is it that a minimalist game like Passage sparked something inside me that I’ve never felt while playing a game before? As odd as it sounds, the answer lies in the story.

At this point, you’re probably scratching your head and saying story, what story? The game is five minutes long and resembles a bathroom tile mosaic designed by a blind monkey. You wander through an empty world whose only other inhabitant is a woman willing to marry you at first sight because you’re her only option. Whether or not you choose to accept her indifferent proposal, you live a sexless, homeless, nomadic existence where the most exciting occurrence is opening treasure chests that serve no purpose other than to increase your score, which is completely arbitrary and has no effect on the game’s outcome…which is always death. Mmmm, that is good narrative. No need to review the other Pulitzer nominees, this one is a lock.

Now, before hoards of Final Fantasy fanboys jump in my face and attempt to deliver a spontaneous lecture on the essential elements of a good story, let’s establish what, in fact, comprises a good story. Good story telling (regardless of whether we’re talking literature, film or video games) is nothing more than an artist providing a narrative framework which vividly expresses his or her idea so the audience can share it. It is important to note, however, that the creator’s vision should allow enough leeway for the audience members to project their own perspectives into the narrative. A truly great story will take its audience on a journey and, although it guides them all along the same path, each individual experiences it in a completely different way. This is where Passage edges out the competition; by presenting a focused, yet deceptively mercurial tale that forces the player to realize the journey itself is the reward because all endings are the same regardless of how you play it. More importantly, although Passage certainly presents the Cliffs Notes version of a human life, it remains open-ended enough to affect every player differently.

For example, what struck me the first time I played through Passage was that the available in-game spouse has red hair and green eyes, just like my wife. It’s a coincidental occurrence, but it immediately gave me a connection to the character. Several minutes later when my aged spousal avatar spontaneously transformed into a tombstone, I’ll admit, I experienced a twinge of sadness; not because I had any profound connection to this prude pixel vixen, but simply because it made me consider the sudden loss of my wife–an unfortunate but realistic possibility as we age. So what’s my point? Although I am undeniably a towering tribute to masculinity (my corneas have five o’clock shadow), I’m not embarrassed to admit that the occasional novel/film has made my gruff, testosterone-soaked pupils turn slightly misty. Up until this point, however, no video game has ever had that effect on me. And yes, that includes Aeris‘ death in Final Fantasy VII. World saving flower girls are a dime a dozen in my book. Besides, I’ve always been a Yuffie man myself.

During my second playthrough, I again chose to link up with my virtual spouse, but took a more exploratory approach the game, often back tracking to see where certain paths led. On my third jaunt, I chose to ignore the idea of marriage altogether, embrace the swinging bachelor life (very difficult in a universe offering just one woman) and explore the map as fully as possible. I played a few more times after that and, although I tried to play each session differently, none of my subsequent playthroughs affected me as profoundly as the first. This phenomenon is a stark contrast to just about every other game I’ve played. With other games, repeated playthroughs serve to enrich the experience as opposed to numbing it–so why was Passage different?

Passage is a brief depiction of a human life from inception to conclusion, stripped down to its most basic levels (regrettably, sans reproduction, but that’s fodder for another article) and, like life, you only get one shot. Make of it what you will–enjoy it, hate it, it’s yours to do what you wish–but know that once you reach the finale that’s it. The end. Fin. To be continued…except not. Repeated playthroughs of Passage, for me at least, only served to dilute the experience because in life, you get one shot. Period. No continues, no resets, no extra lives. Mistakes would be meaningless if you could simply restart and correct them. Conversely, accomplishments would be empty if failure was consequence free because you could reattempt any endeavor ad infinitum. What makes Passage so special, is that it accurately portrays the unstoppable progression of time and lays bare the fleeting nature of humanity.

Still not convinced? Consider this. Passage conveys a simple yet insightful message in less than five minutes of gameplay, managing to touch on a concept universal to the human condition. I’ve rambled on in excess of 1,300 words and (admittedly) haven’t expressed this message half as eloquently as just playing the game.

Maybe that’s indicative of my lackluster writing skills or, maybe, just maybe…Passage is truly a work of art.

Anthony is Editor-in-Chief, co-founder and regular contributor to the Chicago Gamers Club.

16 Comments

  1. pat said on February 12, 2008:

    i agree with you that the videogames-as-art argument should have been put to bed a while ago. in my opinion (and at risk of sounding cliched) it happened with ico. and, come to think of it, the two games (superficially at least) have a bit in common. a lot of the emotional gravity comes from the companionship and the games allows the player to do a lot of the work on filling in the story.

    anyway, interesting exegesis on passage anthony, and welcome to vl.

  2. Christian said on February 12, 2008:

    I think the most interesting thing about Passage, at this point, is that it is one of the only (perhaps THE only) “games are art” example where the meaning behind it is concrete. The author has explained his intention behind it, what it is supposed to mean, at least to him, and knowing that makes the game that much more powerful.

    Ico doesn’t explain what it is about, but the interatctions between characters makes it clear as a bell. I can’t think of any other examples that are tossed around that are so crystal clear. Most other games end up having seven different interpretations, which isn’t a bad thing, but just like a book or a poem, it makes you wonder if people are making a huge stretch to legitimize something they really like.

    There’s nothing wrong with saying “this is what I wanted to do”, and then doing it, and I’m glad Passage was so honest and straightforward about this rather than dancing around the issue or being purposefully vague about it.

  3. shota said on February 12, 2008:

    Anthony, nice job.

    I hope there are very few people who would scratch their heads and ask “what story?” after playing passage. Anthony, you say that “What makes Passage so special, is that it accurately portrays the unstoppable progression of time and lays bare the fleeting nature of humanity.” I want to reinterpret that statement (or perhaps simply reword it) to mean that the strength of Passage is indeed in its narrative. If we define narrative, not just as an attempt at communication between the author and the consumer but, in its most basic form, as movement through time, than passage boils down life to the most basic element of a narrative.

    Pat, as much as I love Ico I disagree that it’s art. It is approaching art but stops just short of the vicinity of art. (note the vague terms, this shit is impossible to quantify) But even if we look at it relatively, I’d say that Passage is more art than Ico. The only reason I can put forth for this is that Ico still maintains the form of a game while passage disrupts that form. Theoretically, you can start ‘playing’ passage and do nothing until you die, and still arrive at a meaningful conclusion. And actually, now that I read the last sentence it brings me to a question: I agree that Passage is art, but is it a game? (and since I have played around with interactive pieces of art in many a museum I’d say that “interactivity” does not a game make.)

    Christian, RE: “The author has explained his intention behind it, what it is supposed to mean, at least to him, and knowing that makes the game that much more powerful…. There’s nothing wrong with saying “this is what I wanted to do”, and then doing it, and I’m glad Passage was so honest and straightforward about this rather than dancing around the issue or being purposefully vague about it.”

    I have to disagree: there is EVERYTHING wrong with explicitly stating authorial intent, especially when it’s done by the author himself. I would argue (and I think Anthony alludes to this in the article) that good art is beyond authorial intent. As an author you may tell us what you meant or what it was exactly that you wanted to say but if you think that you, the author, are the ultimate authority on the meaning of your own art you are deeply mistaken.

    I found the creators explanation of Passage limiting. It insulted my intelligence. The game is better than the explanation offered by the author. I guess what I’m saying is that no author is going to tell me how to feel about their art.

  4. jay said on February 12, 2008:

    Shota, you say Ico is not art because it sticks to game trappings. It sounds like you are defining art as “not a game.”

    Ico made me feel things, and even though it’s a terrible definition, something that evokes emotion is still probably one of the best definitions of art. Therefore ergo hence forthwith fortnight, Ico is art.

  5. pat said on February 12, 2008:

    shota – i am neither equipped nor willing to debate the finer points of the definitions of “game” or “art” and as long as you love ico i have no quarrel with your statements pertaining to it.

    you do almost (and i think you realize this) define games as not-art and art as not-games by stating passage is only art because it continues to have meaning without player input. that criterion is going to severely limit what games can be classified (seems like a crass word when discussing art, no?) as art in the future.

  6. pat said on February 12, 2008:

    dammit jay. you beat me to that point. guess i shouldn’t have reread my post for errors.

    i also wanted to criticize shota for saying there is everything wrong with explicitly stated authorial intent, but then he disarmed me by remembering the author has a right to state what he meant and we have a right to tell him to go to hell.

  7. Shota said on February 13, 2008:

    1. I’m sticking with my comment regarding authorial intent.

    2. I am not saying that Game = not art / not art = game. I think the confusion comes from my inability to clearly define why i think Ico is not quite art. And yes I do love the shit out of that game Pat. And it does have artistic merit. I just don’t think that it’s in the same category as Passage. I want to shift the focus more to my other point: Do you not agree Pat/Jay that Passage is more art than Ico? (you might not, but if you do – why?) The difference between the artistic levels of the two is what i’m interested in. And i’m afraid that for that we will have to get into what a ‘game’ and ‘art’ is, Pat. (the truth is i did not feel like going there myself, which is why i dumped the question on you.

    3. Also, the thing that was in my head is this: whatever a ‘game’ is, i think it is beyond debate that Passage deviates from it. Or at least it deviates from the mainstream. It is a non standard game. Allow an analogy.

    Lawrence of Arabia is a film.

    Andy Warhols 6 hours of empire state building is a film. (it’s six hours of one shot of the Empire state building)

    Both are art.

    But, the manner in which Andy Warhol’s piece is art is surely different from Lawrence. (let’s hold off on ‘why’)

    I want a videogame that will = art and will also be mass distributed, have a wide public appeal and will be paid for by the public. I’m with Mozart on this, Art is for people. Regular people.

    Anthony, Jay, Pat, Stefan and me all rejoyce at Passage and think it’s art, but there was a tone of triumph in Anthony’s article that suggested: “see, Passage proves that videogames can be art.” But none of us needed that proof! Relatively hardcore gamers like us always knew that games can be art. The people that need convincing are in the mainstream. And passage, (by not being a ‘game’ in the way that the mainstream defines it) will likely fall short of that proof. This is sad of course. And I am not suggesting that we should conform to every preconception of the mainstream.

    I am saying that it would have been a bigger victory for us if the game that proved that videogames can be art resembled a game a little more.

    Having said this: I would not change a thing about passage. but i still maintain that the way in which Passage (IN PARTICULAR – i’m not applying this universally) achieves it’s status as art is by braking down the established form for a standard definition of ‘game.’

    I am looking forward to a game that will = art that conforms to the restrictions of ‘standard game’ (whatever that is) and still manges to be art. That’s when I think we will have shown them whats what.

    oh and Pat, I think i’m technically correct here…the best kind of correct!

  8. Stefan said on February 13, 2008:

    Okay Shota, I spent the last series of comments agreeing with you, so now I get to take the opposite stance.

    I understand that you’re not saying interactivity is contrary to art, which is good, because otherwise we’d have issues :)

    Based on what I know of your approach to art, you’re coming from the opinion that art is defined and produced by the artist, not the audience. I know a lot of people who’d argue this one, but I think I can accept this definition and still put forward a pretty solid argument that requiring player input to produce art does not render the art itself meaningless, at least without excluding a broad swath of what came to be considered art over the course of the 20th century.

    The basis of my argument is that the person playing the game is in the role of creator, and the production of a game as art is dependent on the combination of good game design and good play – although one or the other can be more important depending on the individual work of art.

    I’m going to stick with music, because music has traditionally involved both a composer and a performer, and these are the roles I find the most analogous to video game designers and players. Both are artists – the composer sets out the framework in which the performer may play and the path that they will follow – whether it is specifically defined and rigid or extremely vague, and the performer makes their own choices and offers their own interpretation within the bounds provided by the composer. Art and meaning emerges as a result of the interaction between these two artistic roles. As Roger Callois said in his 1958 work Les Jeux et les Hommes, “Every game is a system of rules. What gives meaning to the rules is the desire to play.”

    To establish the extent to which performers can be interactively involved in creation, I went looking for examples that you couldn’t easily refute as “non-art”. The first that popped into mind is John Cage. He incessantly pursued interactivity in his music, from Music for Changes, where casts of the I Ching determined the exact notes that would be played, to 4’33”, where all the sounds of the piece are made spontaneously by the audience and environment. Without choice and interaction on the part of the performers, his 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra can’t even be performed.

    John Zorn’s “Cobra” is a composition which relies almost entirely on improvised interaction between performers within a set of rules defined by the composer.

    Louis Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” goes beyond allowing choice in the selection of notes. It gives each performer their choice of instruments, and can accommodate a widely variable number of players at a given time. Players are, however, constrained by rules about when they need to go up or down, when they can play, and when to rest…even if the intervals and durations of these actions are up to them.

    Now think about those previous sentences in terms of a multi-player video game like Team Fortress, with a choice of roles, variable numbers of players, and enforced time structures and general rules, but in which the specifics of the game emerge as a result of player actions. I’m not saying Team Fortress is a high art game…there are plenty of possible notations for improvisation that I wouldn’t consider art. I’m saying that something like Team Fortress could be art, if it was both well-composed and well-played.

    It is this combination of composition and performance which allows games which were not intended as art to be performed as such – as in the Halo gamplay which produced Red vs. Blue. This example may not be high art, but I think you’ll accept my assertion that there’s nothing inherently preventing machinima from being high art, and I think we’re starting to see some of that in projects like Faith, Hope, and Charity (http://www.wingmenproductions.com/content/index.html)

    In both modern music and games, a large part of the creative burden rests on the performers, which seems to be what you object to in Ico. The notation of Ico may be more rigidly defined than that of Passage, even though Passage’s tempo is fixed, whereas Ico allows the player to rest whenever they see fit, proceeding at the a tempo of their choosing – bounded by the limits imposed by puzzles, enemies, and other rules of the notation.

    You might be right in your initial assertion…Ico may not be art; but if it isn’t, then it’s not because of the game-like framework, or the fact that lack of performer input prevents it from being realized.

  9. Shota said on February 13, 2008:

    Stefan did you write your post after reading my second post? I think you we may have posted at the same time since my second post focuses what i meant more and if you missed it i don’t want to repeat myself.

  10. Stefan said on February 13, 2008:

    Nope, my post was after your first post – I’m still taking in your second and trying to see how it impacts my argument.

    In the meantime, I have a further objection to what you were saying. The mechanic of dying after a specified time period no matter what you do was actually really big in arcades…it’s not necessarily one which breaks away from video game norms.

  11. Stefan said on February 13, 2008:

    Okay, Shota, I don’t think your second post really impacts my first much.

    I’m going to continue to leave your statement about authors declaring their intent alone, since that’s a whole separate argument…and I sort of agree with you.

    I also agree that passage won’t be accepted by the mainstream, but I don’t think it really abandons game mechanics…every mechanic in the game is one which can be found elsewhere. It’s the meaning associated with the framework which makes us play it differently.

    My argument that game mechanics and design are as analogous to the notation of music I think still stands and applies…when composers offer a lot of room for performer choice, it’s hard to say whether or not their compositions are art except on a performance-by-performance basis, because they rely on the interaction between the two artistic roles.

    I think Ico and particularly Shadow of the Colossus could be played as art, but most people don’t…they play it like a piano student finding the simplest way to fulfill Cage’s requirements in order to say they know a piece by him. They rush through to the end without paying attention to what they are crafting through their actions.

    That’s what I think makes Passage different…by devaluing the traditional goals that a player would rush for it more effectively forces them to pay attention to that narrative and helps them to view it from an artistic mindset.

  12. Shota said on February 13, 2008:

    I don’t understand what it is that we are disagreeing on Stefan. of course “every mechanic in the game is one which can be found elsewhere.” and of course “by devaluing the traditional goals that a player would rush for it more effectively forces them to pay attention to that narrative and helps them to view it from an artistic mindset.”

    What we are really talking about is meaning or rather the focus on the lack of objective meaning in Passage. The game is about meaninglessness. And the only meaning is that which we assign to the universal narrative. But the score at the top of the screen, the chests, the exploration are all pointless. And that of course is the point. In this way, the form of Passage renders all those traditional gameplay mechanics meaningless. So yes it looks like a game but it negates itself as a game. This is what i mean when i say that it’s not conventional or mainstream.

    So let me rephrase what i was saying in hopes of greater clarity: i want to see a game that upholds the meaningfulness of its game play mechanics, does not negate itself as a game and still = Art. And then i want this, as yet non-existent game, to gain some popularity and make some money. I want more ‘standard’ games (standard = not everything that i’ve said above) that are art and are a part of the popular culture is the way that Mario and Halo are. What’s wrong with this desire?

    And for the record…I think it’s not only possible but it will happen very soon.

  13. jay said on February 13, 2008:

    Someone could play Passage and take the meaning form it that it’s the journey that matters. I don’t agree but then I disagree with the same people who insist life isn’t meaningless and it’s the journey that matters.

    Is your position that they are simply wrong, Shota?

  14. Shota said on February 13, 2008:

    who, the people who say that it’s the journey that matters and life is not meaningless? Of course they’re wrong. I’m not even going to entertain the argument that they are not wrong. Read Phillip Roth and watch Woody Allen and if you still don’t think that life=luck/chance I have nothing to talk to you about.

  15. Stefan said on February 14, 2008:

    So wait, meaning is mutually exclusive with luck/chance?

  16. Shota said on February 14, 2008:

    Objective meaning? Yes.

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